In August 2018, I started my position as a Policy Analyst at the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Since then, I have spent my time diving into the policies and use of taxpayer dollars in the city of Boise.
The Boise City Council ended 2018 with many answers to large questions still hanging in the air. As we begin this first month of a new calendar year, I wanted to offer Boise residents a review of what has happened in the city over the past few months.
The subject of a new baseball stadium in the city of Boise has been contemplated for much longer than just the past few months. However, recent decisions by city council have solidified two aspects of this potential stadium: It won’t be located in the Shoreline urban renewal district and it could be funded by the sale of the Grove Plaza.
The plot of land originally considered by an Atlanta developer for construction of this baseball stadium was located on Americana Boulevard and Shoreline Drive. However, the developer changed plans after public criticism that the Shoreline location would fall within a proposed urban renewal district, and is now considering a plot on Main Street and Whitewater Park. In an urban renewal district, the developer would have been eligible to receive public dollars from the city’s urban renewal agency to build the stadium.
However, this shift in location has not interfered with the set intention of the mayor, and many city councilors, to contribute taxpayer dollars to help fund the stadium. In October, the city council accepted an ownership transfer of the Grove Plaza from CCDC—the city’s urban renewal agency—which came with a specific condition: If the city were ever to sell the Grove Plaza, the proceeds could only be used for construction of a sports park. This is a limitation that Councilmember Clegg, one of two protesting councilmembers, noted was “a specific use and from [her] point of view, it would be much more appropriate to have a list of uses.”
Urban Renewal Districts
Even though the location change for the aforementioned stadium removes it from the Shoreline urban renewal district, the stadium could still end up in an urban renewal district. The Boise City Council approved the creation of two new urban renewal districts in December 2018: the aforementioned Shoreline district and Gateway East district. Plus, within the next couple years, the city is set to hear proposals for at least two additional urban renewal districts, one on State Street and one on the Boise Bench.
Four new urban renewal districts—the two that were approved in December 2018 and the two that will soon be heard—in such a short period is unprecedented. Prior to 2018, the city approved a total of four districts over 20 years. Now, in just a couple years, the city may add a total of four more, rapidly accelerating their approval pace and the sheer area of the city that has tax funds diverted to tax-increment financing.
In early December 2018, Margaret Carmel of the Idaho Press found that the city of Boise’s Downtown Housing Incentive Program has funded expensive housing developments.
In addition, these same developments received additional tax dollars from the city’s urban renewal agency. Because the downtown is filled with urban renewal districts, the developments in this incentive program have received tens of thousands of dollars from the city plus hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars from the urban renewal agency.
A New Boise Main Library
In the beginning of 2018, Boston-based Safdie Architects was granted a $495,000 contract by the City of Boise, to provide a conceptual design for a new Boise main library. Though this contract has, so far, only included the initial design, it has exposed several instances of poor project management.
Firstly, the city paid for first class airfare and the priciest hotel stay in Boise for Moshe Safdie and his employees—costing upwards of $22,000. Secondly, it was discovered that the city was unable to use land previously earmarked for the library expansion because the land was locked in a 45-year lease to a private company. Thirdly, Safdie’s conceptual library design did not respect the hard-line $85 million city budget. The price tag for the library design that Safdie Architects unveiled is upwards of $104 million. Fourthly, the rendering did not include space for The Cabin, a structure on the current site of the library. The Cabin will be relocated as a result—adding another $650,000 to the project’s cost.
Even with all these blunders—that have added upwards of $19.7 million to the project cost—the city still awarded Safdie Architects an $11 million contract to flesh out the final design.
Understandably, many Boiseans have been frustrated by these blunders and poor management. Scrutiny of the project is likely to continue into 2019.
As mentioned, one blunder of Safdie Architects has been the omission of The Cabin from the new library design. This omission has been a thorn in the side of the city due to a 30-year, $1-a-year contract between the city and the nonprofit that rents The Cabin. The contract requires the city to provide a building and location to the organization. Thus, last November, the city council voted to move The Cabin structure to a new location, which will cost an estimated $650,000. The exact location will be determined at some council meeting in 2019.
A New Historic District
In December, Boise City Council approved the creation of a new historic district between Main and Idaho Streets. This decision was a blow to residents in two ways. Firstly, a majority of those who wrote council in support of the district do not actually reside within its boundaries and do not themselves have to deal with the regulatory consequences of a historic district. Whereas the several residents who fought the creation of this district are now subject to onerous regulations for any change they make to their property. Secondly, the city exempts itself from the onerous regulations for historic property it owns—the very same regulations it makes its residents follow—as shown in the aforementioned situation with The Cabin.
Some residents have not been happy with the city council’s actions over the past year, and they want greater voter input as a remedy. In late December, a group called Boise Working Together proposed initiatives to the city that would require a public vote on both the proposed stadium and the plan for the new Boise library. In 2019, we will see if the group can collect the 5,000 valid signatures needed to get these measures on the ballot.
Whether or not this group can collect enough signatures to increase voter input on major projects—that require major funds—there is one thing that will be on a 2019 ballot for certain. Come the end of 2019, Boiseans will have the opportunity to vote on both mayor and council member elections.